What determines if a plant is a fruit or a vegetable?

At the center of the overlapping area between fruits and vegetables lies the tomato. Is it a fruit or a vegetable? It doesn’t taste sweet like most fruits, yet it does contain seeds and has the same form of an apple. Moreover, we often see them in vegetable gardens, growing with cabbages, carrots, and potatoes, which are all legitimate vegetables. But, truth to be told, tomato is a fruit and not a vegetable.

In a botanical standpoint, fruits are seed-bearing outgrowths, which grow from a flowering plant’s ovary. On the other hand, vegetables come from all other plant parts, like leaves, stems, and roots. With that in mind, seedy structures, like oranges, watermelon, and the controversial tomatoes are all fruits. Meanwhile, leaves, such as Brussel sprouts, cabbages, and spinach; stems, such as broccoli and asparagus; and roots like beets, radishes, carrots are all types of vegetables.

Here’s a list of other vegetables that are actually fruits

  • Cucumber
  • Pumpkin
  • Eggplant
  • Okra
  • Peas
  • Peppers
  • Olives
  • String Beans
  • Bitter Gourd

However, things change when looking at these outgrowths from a culinary perspective. They are classified based on taste. Fruits are either sour or sweet, while vegetables tend to be more savory. Generally, people regard fruits as those that can be consumed as a snack or a dessert and vegetables as part or base of the main course, or as a healthy side dish. With that, several foods that are considered as fruits botanically are considered vegetables, such as bell peppers, eggplants, and again, tomatoes.

The debate between fruits versus vegetables once heated that the law had to intervene. In 1983, under the Nix v. Hedden, 149 U.S. 304, the Supreme Court ruled that tomatoes, under the regulations of the U.S. customs, must be taxed as a vegetable and not as a fruit. While they acknowledged that tomatoes are fruit in a botanical stance, they said that the Tariff Act of 1883 used the basic meanings of the words fruit and vegetables – the ones used in culinary or the kitchen. 

Wrapping things up, three primary factors are used to classify plants. First is biological and the one used in botany, wherein biologists study and focus on the structural and molecular compositions of the plants to classify its plant status.

Second, the culinary or traditional method, wherein the methods or approaches on how a plant outgrowth is used in the kitchen or cooking serves as the basis for classifying whether it’s a fruit or a vegetable.

Lastly, the legal basis. Tax status became a factor in classifying produce as a fruit or a vegetable. This scenario can be seen in tomato’s designation as a fruit based on the ruling of the Supreme Court in 1893. On the other hand, the garden rhubarb, which is technically a vegetable, is legally regarded as a fruit. A 1947 New York court ruling made the decision as the said outgrowth is often consumed as a fruit in the United States and to reduce its taxes.

While this has been a frequent topic for debate, often, it doesn’t matter whether the plant product is a fruit or vegetable as both can be used interchangeably. Fruits can be used in savory meals, such as a dinner salad. Meanwhile, vegetables can also be used in desserts, such as in spinach bars or carrot cakes. Knowing whether an outgrowth doesn’t really change cooking methods or approaches too much as we value nutrition and taste more than the classification after all. But, it is just fun to know what produce you are actually dealing with.

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